Bassist Rhys Webb talks the band’s new album, its surrounding recording sessions, and how it all came together
For over a decade, English rockers The Horrors have grown in both sound and popularity as they’ve moved from performing intimate basement club gigs to booking massive stadiums. Now touring with the likes of mega-giants Depeche Mode, the Essex-originated quintet continues to evolve and impress, with their albums charting consistently on British Top 10 lists. They’ve just released their fifth effort, V (pronounced “vee”), and it might just be the band’s best and most transformative record yet.
Stepping into the studio with one of pop’s biggest producers, Paul Epworth – known for his work with Adele, Lorde, and Rihanna – might seem like a calculated move towards growing in popularity. However, The Horrors were familiar with Epworth’s complete catalogue, and understood that he saw this as an opportunity to let his hair down and return to his roots. The result is a masterstroke for both band and producer.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with bassist Rhys Webb, who had just wolfed down a cheeseburger hoping the grease would soak up last night’s hangover. They discussed the band’s new album, its surrounding recording sessions, and how it all came together.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking because you are about to release your new album, V. Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
Rhys Webb: I have to say, the mood in camp is actually a really positive one, which is not always the case for The Horrors, but everyone is really excited about the new album. Really excited about its release, looking forward for everyone to hear it, and we’ve been playing a few tracks live, playing four tracks as part of our live set at the moment, and they seem to be going down really well.
We are kind of itching to just get back out on the road. We haven’t toured for what feels like a very long time. We had a lot of festivals last year, but we’re going on tour in October and that should bring us to the States in the new year, but we’ve got U.K., Europe, and then next year we should be out to the States and South America and elsewhere around the world. Actually, I just can’t wait, I’m really, really into… strangely, more so almost than ever, I’m really just looking forward to getting out on the road and playing these tunes. Everyone I think is feeling and sharing that, which is a good thing.
CF: You recently toured with Depeche Mode. Did you speak with them at all? Did they pass on any advice that you are going to use or continue to remember?
RW: I wish they did. I mean we were playing stadium arena shows with Depeche Mode around Europe. It was the London Olympic Stadium, which is now West Ham football ground, and literally every night it was kind of 60,000 people or something.
The thing with those gigs is that we’re in this dressing room, it’s kind of like a sports hall or something, we’re in like a sports dressing room. And they are kind of 15 minutes in another location, so we didn’t actually have a chance to hang out that much. But Martin came and said, “Hello,” on the first night and kind of welcomed us to the tour, and seemed like a great guy. So we didn’t really get any advice parted out, but I did thoroughly enjoy watching them every night, and we actually come from a very similar place in Essex, so there is quite a kind of local connection.
And I think they had quite a connection with us and them as a band, just the way they started as kind of teenagers, I mean they use synthesisers and we use guitars, but they have that kind of punk attitude for creating music and as they have gone on, they have gone on to explore the electronic elements and write some amazing songs, so they are definitely an amazing group.
CF: To talk about the new album and that exploration of sounds, you worked with Paul Epworth, who is known for producing Lorde, Rihanna, and Adele. I generally don’t think of The Horrors and Adele in the same “genre”, but maybe that’s my fault….
RW: … Not at all [laughs]. I think we are definitely a different kettle of fish all together, but Paul basically started working as a producer and a DJ in the early 2000’s, which is kind of around the time we got to know each other, and we were going out and about. About that time he was working doing remixes for The Rapture. He was even touring, doing sound with – James Murphy couldn’t do it in those early days – doing things with Death From Above, not the label but the band, and he was in a punk band as well in the late 90’s, so he started off in that world.
He also used to run this club called 93 Feet East, so we grew up with that side of Paul, really. And then he kind of had success with Bloc Party, a British group I’m sure you’ve heard of, and then just went on to make some big records. For us, we knew where he came from and we knew what his interest in music was like and what appealed to us was the fact that he was so varied, that he has massive, keen interest, in hip hop, electronic music, dance, as well as songwriting, classic pop, and recently he had been working with Stone Roses, so he is just kind of like us really – I mean we’re into a bit of everything – but at the same time we also wanted the challenge of working with a producer who was really going to focus on our ideas. Songwriting is really important, and over the years we’re always trying to write better songs, so working with someone who had that kind of ear and focus was kind of like, “If we are going to do it, we should go for it, see what happens.”
We actually found what happened was, I think we were almost an excuse for him to let his hair down and go wild in the studio because he knew it wasn’t a kind of massive pop pressure. The first thing he said when we met him was like, “Let’s just make a really f***ing great album. Let’s make a really f***ing weird album,” and then we turned up in the studio, and he brought every single synthesizer he had, which was covered up in like the Church Studio, which is a converted church, an amazing space, and there was like a whole wall of synthesizers. I don’t know how many, like 50, 60 synthesizers, any one you could imagine.
Anyway, his attack was like, “Let’s experiment, and let’s get weird.” It was a good meeting. I feel like people don’t know that about Paul really. He is actually quite anxious, kind of freaking out in the studio, so we had a lot that.
CF: You said previously, “We had a very clear idea of what we wanted to do, which was to make as furious a noise as possible.” Did your initial plans for the sound of this record change throughout the recording process, and if so, how?
RW: When we said we had a clear idea of what we wanted to do, I think it was probably a bit more vague than 100 percent clear, but what we did know we wanted to do was make a rawer record, a live-er sounding record, and we wanted to hear more guitar, and we wanted to make a more dangerous sounding record. In some places we had this real urge, we wanted to make a heavier record and a darker record. That was our main motivation. We felt like we’d kind of been spinning around on a bit of a disco ball for the last couple years, and we wanted to make something that was kind of a bit more dangerous.
Actually, really I think what is great about recording with Paul is that he keeps that live excitement in the recording, and not only that, the way he works is really quickly. So it’s a really fast paced kind of situation, so when you’re in that environment, when you’re putting down ideas quickly, like the guitar part will go down and it’s kind of this bit happening live in the room, and everyone is going, “Yes, yes, it sounds great.” And then we kind of go, “Alright, let’s not f*** around. Let’s not get hung up on it. Let’s just leave that.” I think that was so of the element, we felt like we were missing a little bit from our last record, and we just wanted to kind of, like, let it happen a bit. So actually I think we went in wanting to capture this slightly more energetic, rawer sound, and I think we did.
We felt we smoothed off a lot of edges when we self-produced the last couple, and Luminous, which was the fourth album, I feel like it got to that point where we’d been working together, that in the way we were working, it was time for a change, which is why we went to a producer. I think somehow we had started smoothing off some edges, which we should never really have smoothed off, and it became a little bit more programmed and electronic, and it needed to be brought back to life, and that was a real important thing for this album.
CF: The songs on the record are so diverse, it’s a large step from “Machine” early on to the closer, “Something To Remember Me By”, but it all seems to move fluidly. Can you talk a little bit about your songwriting process and how you delivered all these different sorts of sounds within a collective idea?
RW: I guess the songwriting for this album stretched out over the last couple of years, so it’s been kind of staggered as we’ve been playing shows and recording and regrouping, but there’s never any rules for how a song is written, and there’s not really a main songwriter in the group. It’s usually a very collaborative thing. Part of this album, I’d say almost half this album, we wrote in the studio, most of the time from just playing together and starting with an idea and building and working together on the idea as a group, as it happened.
The other half was written by various members, often working in pairs, going off and working together and bringing their ideas, putting them forward to the group as kind of an embryonic idea of a demo or a loose idea of a song. Then the band, each member just getting involved and having their creative input and putting their stamp on it, well, not really stamp, but for us we kind of find that a Horrors song never sounds like a Horrors song until all The Horrors are on it [laughs].
Some stuff for the first time ever, Faris and I sat down with an acoustic guitar, just me and him, and we’ve never really attacked writing songs like that, which seems kind of bizarre. It seems like the most obvious, most sensical way of starting ideas but we’ve never worked like that. So that was something that was quite new, and that ended up, we did loads of stuff, but there was a track called “Gathering” which is on the album, which came from that session.
For the first time on this one, Joe also started off some ideas, which was really exciting. He brought along kind of an early version of this track called “Ghost”, which is actually one of my favorites on the album.
What we basically look for is a strong idea, and then we kind of collaborate and actually it almost opens up to every instrument. We’ll talk about guitar, we’ll talk about the rhythm and the bass, and most of the time we’re kind of building these songs together in the studio, really. I don’t know if that’s a long explanation… Some songs would be in a constant state of evolution.
There is a track called “Hologram” which started off as much more guitar heavy, kind of almost punky, it had an almost Killing Joke kind of vibe, and that went through so many left turns, at one point it was a 20-minute, kind of like Frankie Knuckles house track, with the vocals not dropping till 12 minutes in. Luckily we managed to get it down to like 10 minutes in the end, and all of the best bits were in there. But then there are songs like “Weighed Down”, which is another of my favorites actually, and that song was written in an afternoon and basically didn’t change at all. It’s kind of funny, they all presented themselves in different ways.
CF: Considering you wrote a lot in the studio and that you went through this collaborative effort to create these songs, and they all seem to have formed from one thing into another before becoming what they are now on the album, was there a particular moment from the studio that kind of sums up the entire recording experience?
RW: There’s kind of two things that spring to mind. One is, for us there’s always one song that really starts to fuel the excitement or fuel the fire of the album or to get things moving, and that was “Weighed Down”, a track I just mentioned that we wrote in the studio with Paul, and it was kind of very early on. In fact, it was in the first week we worked with him. We had a couple of weeks, a session that was kind of just giving it a go, an experiment to see if it worked, and we’d been writing for a while. That felt like a turning point, but funnily enough, I think talking about the evolution of the track “Hologram”, to me that kind of sums it up, because we were kind of, really, one thing that we were doing was having fun with trying out different ideas.
So we turned to that track – it always seemed like Friday night – and we’d have things like, almost like I said this kind of sequenced, Frankie Knuckles vibe one night, then some insane kind of Big Black-inspired, kind of metallic guitar wall of noise one night, so actually, if anything sums it up, it was kind of a feeling of exploration, and just wanting to try out different ideas and sounds. That was the spirit of the place. We were constantly putting drums through modular synths or just experimenting with things. Faris going through the code, that was a new thing for us. That kind of sums it up. It was quite an exploratory time.
CF: It seems like change and growth and even risk were big parts and themes of this album. Can you describe something in art that you use as a point of reference that also offers an enduring perspective of quality and growth that you are using to influence your art?
RW: Something that springs to mind, and it’s the first thing that comes into my head, but I’m a big fan, which doesn’t really seem to represent the music of our band [laughs], but as a creative artist, David Hockney, I think, has had an amazing career starting with the kind of pop art kind of thing in the 60s. He’s always, constantly being inspired in most places by technology that surrounds him, so by the late 60s, early 70s he’s experimenting with Polaroids and doing Polaroid montages for the first time, and more recently he’s using an iPad and doing iPad portraits and he has never really stuck in one area of art. He’s constantly wanting to try different things, and if that’s painting inside swimming pools or painting the swimming pool, I think he’s quite an inspirational character. That comes to mind immediately as someone who I think always felt the need to not stay in one place for too long, which I think is how we feel.
Our motivation to move is mainly for our own interest because I think what would be the worst situation would be to become bored of what you’re doing, and I don’t think that’s ever really been a question for us, I don’t think we would have been able to play together for over 10 years if we did.
I think at the same time, with someone like David Hockney, he’s working always on the side of the edge, even if it is on an iPad or a Polaroid collage or something he did in 1963, it’s always unrecognizably his, but at that same time communicated in a completely abstract or completely different way, depending on the medium he chooses to use, and I kind of feel like we always sound like The Horrors, and we talk about change and evolution, which is definitely important and in my opinion a must for us, but I hope at the same time, whatever we do, I hope it sounds like The Horrors. I think we do share that kind of quest to keep moving and explore and keep yourself inspired.
CF: Over the course of your career you’ve had a fair breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?
RW: Funny enough, the thing is, ok this is really not a good answer, but the only thing we really do is, nah I gotta think of a better one than that, but we’re pretty grounded [laughs]. It’s almost like recording the music reminds us what we’re doing, and I think for us maybe it’s as simple as having started as a band whose main ambition was to maybe one day record a seven-inch single, and we were just playing live gigs, and just having a great time making horrible noises in small clubs and basements around London, and now to be at a point of recording a fifth album, and actually feeling pretty pleased at what we’ve done, and that’s almost over a decade as well.
It’s a great reminder of the situation we found ourselves in. I think that’s quite grounding. Apart from that, I think we are quite grounded anyway [laughs], but that’s a really nice way of remembering and appreciating and just being excited about the situation. And actually now it feels almost like… at this moment, with this record, it feels as fresh as it has ever done, if not more so than it has in the last, good few years to us. It really feels like the beginning of a new chapter as a band, quite a nice place to be.